as noted in the last post, this year the foundation for endangered languages annual conference focuses on music and language revitalization movements. as a student of an endangered language and an anthropologist who strays into ethnomusicology, you can expect that i would have some opinions about this matter; and i’ve been asked to present a paper. what’s more, the conference is in new orleans:how could i miss it?

many of you have probably employed music, particularly catchy popular music tunes, as a language learning tool. you are not alone. one of the few media resources, in fact, for learning sowal no ‘amis is the corpus of popular music in the language. perhaps learning in this fashion has the drawback of a relatively limited vocabulary, but there are elements of the language that might be hard to learn without this resource, such as the use of the particle sa in prosody (for example sa i no mako instead of ako or no mako to maintain meter) and how adroitly to employ the “handling / disposal” voice, a grammatical figure that’s a bit tricky for some of us who’d like to learn to speak ‘amis

yet, i’m not convinced that musical performance, at least in the presentational mode, does much to displace language ideologies that consign languages like sowal no ‘amis to marginality. besides, at my best i’m a bit socratic. there is a bit too much congratulatory and otherwise unclear rhetoric among the language preservation crowd, along with the alarmism. and i think that we should ask some difficult questions about what we mean by language revitalization. so as an ironist, i’d like to present the following thoughts:

performed but not spoken:
double binds and limitations of musical performance in language revival movements

Visitors to Taiwan are often struck by the island country’s current commitment to cultural diversity, notable in contrast to the assimilationist ideology that prevailed during the Chiang regime (1945-1988). A ride on Taitung’s DiingDong Bus, the Taipei Metro, or Taiwan Railways (TRA) proclaims Taiwan’s embrace of multilingualism in the wake of the democratic reforms from the late 1980s forward. Announcements broadcast in Mandarin, Hoklo, Hakka, English, and–if on the TRA Eastern Trunk Line–Sowal no ‘Amis, give the station name and caution riders not to chew betel, smoke, or eat on the subway. However, the most pertinent information for subway riders, such as on which side will the door open, is given in Mandarin only, revealing that the function of public multilingualism is not to promote civil comportment but to hail listeners as members of a specific ethnic community

In Taiwan today, public multilingualism often concerns recognition of ethnic identity and not the communication of information; similarly, indigenous languages have symbolic value but are not languages of commerce, education, or public deliberation. Nonetheless, the symbolic presence of these languages, their trace, grounds Taiwan as a democratic polity. In this sense, indigenous languages are a necessary component of a pubic sphere that both conjures indigenous languages and consigns them to the periphery. The probable links between the Formosan languages and Austronesian dispersal has sparked scholarly interest in these languages and kindled nationalist aspirations among a Taiwanese public in search of a future beyond China. Reduced to a trace of national heritage that links Taiwan to a wider Austronesian culture area these languages circulate, accruing value. This value, which situates Taiwan as not quite China, burnishes Taiwan’s democratic credentials and rebuffs Chinese irredentism. Yet it does not foster the use of indigenous languages in everyday discourse, even as it generates a testing industry to certify some indigenous subjects as “indigenous enough” to fulfill the state’s affirmative action requirements

Faced with such tokenism, critically minded scholarship might ask what we might mean by language maintenance or revitalization. On the whole, scholars in the endangered language filed, whether linguists engaged in documentation or anthropologists in the cultural survival mode, have not posed that question. As a result, our work has often been complicit with institutions that marginalize indigenous languages in the act of promoting them to rarified heights of irreplaceable heritage

what do we know?
What do we mean by language revitalization? Analytically, we might pose the question as “what good are indigenous languages?” If we define this good in terms of human experience encoded within a discrete symbolic register, documentation suffices; similarly, the symbolic value of indigenous languages for settler colonial societies attempting to revamp themselves as multiculturalist democracies obviates the use of these languages in all but a few restricted contexts

A recently published phrasebook (published in 2008 as part of a local economic development project) suggests an alternate reality. Perhaps in a bout of wishful thinking, in which indigenous languages are everyday registers and not symbolic tokens, the phrasebook teaches readers how to reserve, check in, and check out of a hotel, in addition to providing other useful tourist phrases–as if one would need to learn Sowal no ‘Amis to visit Hualien and Taitung. Even more oddly, the phrasebook seems aimed at an ‘Amis audience

Although the textbook seems ridiculous, we might interpret it as ironic: It points out that we do not really know what it means to engage in language revitalization. In other words, it shows how our efforts are infelicitous because we cannot really mean to revitalize these languages in the dirty registers of economic utility or political calculation. The phrasebook demands us to account for what we might mean by language revitalization, revealing our efforts as mummery. We cannot imagine a world in which ‘Amis youth would need to speak ‘Amis except in moments of symbolic representation. Thus Sowal no ‘Amis circulates as a supplement to a monoglot Mandarin public sphere. But is that what we mean by language revitalization?

It is likely safe to say that without drastic measures, the Formosan languages will disappear from daily use within ten years.
But this is not to say that the Formosan languages will disappear entirely. Rather than calling them “dead” languages, it would be more appropriate to call them “undead,” maintaining a type of spectral existence as languages of ritual–here taken in a broad sense including greetings, political speeches, and politeness registers, as well as religious ritual. They will, I suspect, continue to be taught and tested in this fashion, becoming languages akin to Biblical Hebrew among American Reform and Conservative Jews. In fact, one observer of indigenous language education on Taiwan, Kerim Friedman, has commented upon the resemblance between the practices and ideologies of “mother tongue education” on Taiwan and the rituals of Hebrew school. In both cases, Friedman argues, the languages are essential for maintenance of ethnic identity but there is no expectation that students desire to employ their “mother tongue” in everyday life

For those of us interested in the revival of these languages as living, quotidian registers, the ritualization of Formosan languages poses a problem: To what extent are culturalist discourses, such as those produced by cultural survival, language rights, or intangible heritage activists, part of the problem? Would it be better to promote what Errington has called “impure but authentic” registers of everyday indigenous speech, even when those registers contain significant lexical and grammatical borrowings from dominant languages? It is with this question that I would like to turn to the songwriting and performance projects of contemporary indigenous singer-songwriters, particularly in contrast with another set of performance practices prevalent in ‘Amis communities